Cut Adrift.

30 Jun

Like nearly half of the UK’s population I woke up on the morning of June 24th, 2016, to news that both shocked and depressed me. The British people had voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, which we have been a member of since 1973. I had previously been mortified by the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015, but at least my dismay on that occasion was allayed by the thought that it would only last for 5 years maximum and then we would get a chance to overturn the result in the next General Election. However, the fateful decision to leave the EU will not just last for 5 years, but is probably irrevocable. The younger generations, who largely voted to stay in, are now stuck with the consequences of their elder peers’ negative decision. As one work colleague put it: “We’ve been cut adrift.”

This piece is not intended to be an expert analysis of the :political, economic, social and constitutional dimensions of this momentous development. This is because I am not an expert in any of these spheres. However, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I would like to try to summarise my own personal reaction.  I don’t wish to upset or attack the people who voted “Leave.” They had their reasons which were valid to them. I accept the result just I accept the system of democracy. I am not one of the callers for a second EU referendum just because I didn’t like the result of the first. Having said that, I think the decision to leave is wrong and probably reveals some worrying  characteristics of the nation I am part of.

First of all, I think that for many, this was not a carefully considered decision but a loud vote of protest.Many regions of Britain have suffered from unemployment, lack of investment and poverty. They have been left behind in the economic race and feel neglected and abandoned. These areas, particularly in the north, the midlands and Wales voted resoundingly to leave the EU in the recent referendum. This includes Cleveland in the north-east where I now live. I was a polling clerk in a small, ex-mining village, and although we are not allowed to discuss the issues with the voters, many  barely bothered to conceal their intentions. It was obvious to me that many were intent on delivering a protest vote against the so called “establishment” whom they blamed for many of their troubles. It was the “ordinary” working class wanting to give the rich, privileged, political elite a good kicking. One actually said that he was going to punish Cameron ( The pro-“Remain” Prime Minister) for all his “lies.” I got the distinct impression from my experiences in the polling station and my forays into social media that numerous people  primarily wanted to register such a vote of dissent. Quite a few older electors admitted that they  didn’t usually bother to vote but had especially turned out for this one. Nationally, it was the highest turn-out for a very long time. People were very taken with the idea that in a referendum, every single vote counts, unlike the “first past the post” system that the UK has in its normal elections. But having turned up, many of them didn’t know what to do. It was weird having to tell people in their fifties and sixties that they simply had to put a cross in the box of their choice. Many, whipped-up by a campaign on Facebook, were very suspicious that only a pencil was provided in the voting booth rather than a pen, even though thick pencils have always been used in British elections since the year dot. They expressed their concern that officials could later rub out their ” Leave” crosses and change them to “Remain.” Despite their political naivety and ignorance of polling procedures, these people had turned up because they were angry, and this anger had overcome their previous apathy. If this is true, then it’s a shame that this wider issue of shaking up the “establishment” clouded the more specific and crucially important issue of whether the country should remain in or leave the EU.

Another serious concern raised by the vote is our attitude to foreigners. I think patriotism is fine but if taken to extremes, can turn into unpleasant chauvinism or even xenophobia. Unfortunately, foreigners make very convenient scapegoats. It’s so easy to blame them for all our ills. According to the blamers, foreigners are: stealing our jobs, depressing our wages, taking our houses, making our schools over-crowded, overwhelming our health service and destroying our identity. I have heard all these arguments through the years, especially from a certain section of the tabloid press. In fact, I think many of these ideas have originated from the more corrosive elements of the popular press, which had been drip-feeding anti-EU and anti-immigration propaganda into peoples’ minds for decades This fear and distrust of thee “outsider” is not a new phenomenum. In the early years of the 20th century, the governments tried to unite the country against the “yellow peril.” Then in the 1950’s and 60’s, large scale immigration from the  Commonwealth led to widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. This culminated in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in Smethwick in 1969. I think he had serious and important points to make but the unfortunate side effect of his words was that it provided a more  respectable face for racists. Despite anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970’s, I believe that racism is alive and well in the UK and bubbles just beneath the surface of respectable society. Unfortunately, the EU’s “free movement of people” policy, has led to another upsurge of foreigner hating, especially when large numbers of people from Poland, Slovakia, Romania and other east European people arrived on our shores. This is despite the fact that many of them are very hard-working and have made important contributions to the economy, doing the jobs that British workers have not been keen to do. As one outspoken voter loudly exclaimed: “Enoch was right. He was a great man.”

To a certain extent I think this is just fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”. Unfortunately, more extreme members of the right wing turn this fear and unease into ideas of white British racial superiority. The National Front, The British National Party and the English Defence League  espouse neo-Nazi ideas about race and wish all foreigners, especially those with darker skins, to be deported. Slogans have already been painted up urging immigration to be replaced by repatriation. Luckily, the majority of British people abhor such ideas and the out- and- out racists have been largely kept in check. However, a relatively new party, UKIP, formed in the early 21st century has successfully managed to merge the issues of  EU membership ( with its free movement of people principle) with that of mass immigration. They have given the anti-foreigner idea a slightly more respectable cloak. Not only are foreigners coming over in increasingly large numbers to take our jobs etc, according to UKIP, but other, unelected foreigners in Brussels and Strasbourg are making decisions that effect British peoples’ lives detrimentally. So goes the argument. It’s easy to blame the foreigners for all Britain’s problems. Hitler blamed all Germany’s problems on the Jews. It’s the same idea. The trouble is that once these racist ideas come out of the woodwork, they can be very unpleasant and destructive. Already, since the Leave vote, there have been numerous racial incidents up and down the country. The far -right extremists unfortunately now feel emboldened to tell foreigners that they are not welcome in the UK. This is a very upsetting and unfortunate result of the Leave vote.

I believe that the EU leaders should be more democratically accountable to the people of Europe and I also think that the completely free movement of people needs to be looked at and modified, because, inevitably it will lead to people from poorer countries migrating to their richer European neighbours. However, I believe that Britain should have fought for such reform from within, rather than throwing its toys out of the pram and leaving the Union. It has been a case of flight not fight. I can sympathise with people who live in areas with a large immigrant population as they fear that they are losing their British identity. For many, identity trumps the economy and so they have ignored the warnings about dire economic consequences of a Leave vote. I think the numbers of incomers should be more carefully controlled but feel that a multi-cultural society has enriched Britain immeasurably over the years. It has broadened minds and given us many new alternatives in diet, religion, music, dance, art, language and traditions. We would be a much culturally poorer country if we consisted of just one race. However, the Leave vote heralds the advent of a more narrow minded, mono-culture definition of British life.

Britain has a long history of Empire and for a long time did not need to rely on its neighbours in Europe as its main trading partners. This is why, despite Churchill’s far sighted vision of a united Europe, the British government of the late 1940’s ( Atlee’s Labour administration), didn’t feel the need to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, set up by the Germans and the French and joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Italy. The British also considered themselves as “Atlanticists” proudly pointing out their so-called special relationship with the USA. The aims of the Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, had been to deliberately inter-mesh their economies so as to make future wars between them impossible. Europe and the World had suffered two catastrophic wars in the 20th Century which had at their heart the long term enmity between Germany and France. Other terrible Franco-German wars had taken place in the 19th century. Thus by 1945, surveying yet another devastated continent, French and German statesmen said “never again” and took their brave and far-sighted decision to integrate and cooperate rather than continue to compete and confront. Their brave gamble has paid off as there has been no war between members of the European Union since its inception. The British stayed aloof of the new union, but when their Empire quickly melted away in the 1950’s and 60’s and their special cross-Atlantic relationship was exposed when the Americans refused to back them in the Suez crisis of 1956, they belatedly realised that their new focus must be on Europe. Prime Minister  Harold McMillan applied to join in the early 1960’s but was eventually rebuffed by France’s President De Gaulle, who said that the British didn’t have the right attitude to be good Europeans. Maybe, looking at our leave vote of June 23rd, 2016, and our history of opt-outs, objections and vetoes, De Gaulle had a point. Separated from the European mainland by a thin strip of sea, the English Channel, the British have found it difficult to cooperate with their European partners. It is almost if: because of our proud history being in charge of an  Empire, our  status as a Great Power, our seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, we regard ourselves as superior to our neighbours across the Channel. I’m sure this belief that Britain is a uniquely great nation and doesn’t need to cow-tow to or cooperate with others, is behind many people’s dislike of the EU, and their wish to leave it and go it alone. When people say they “want their country back”, the familiar and successful slogan of the Leave campaign, I suspect they are thinking back to a Britain in the past, not the diminished country of today, stripped of much of its power and influence. I think it is a mistake to think that the United Kingdom is still a great and powerful nation that can easily go it alone.

I suppose I could go on making point after point and this blog could go on for ever. That would be a waste of time as no-one would want to read it to the end anyway. The remaining important thing I want to say is that I have always been an Internationalist, ever since I owned my first stamp album. It makes me sad to realize I am living in  a nation of insular, “Little-Englanders.” I have always been interested in other countries and have wanted to travel to see them and experience their different cultures. I wanted to enrich my life and broaden my mind. My parents never left these shores and never showed any desire for foreign travel. At first they were too poor and later they were too timid to leave the comfort-zone of Britain. As I grew older I developed an increasing desire for foreign adventure. To their credit, my mum and dad recognised this and made a big financial sacrifice in paying for me to go on a school trip to the south of France in 1966. This lit the blue touch-paper and launched my life-long wanderlust.. Throughout my adult life I have travelled extensively throughout Europe and in the World at large, especially in my post-retirement years. I have enjoyed the UK being part of the European Community with all the economic and cultural benefits that this has brought. This is why I think it’s a great shame that many people want to pull up the draw-bridge and withdraw from the European project that we have been a part of for over 4 decades. In this modern, increasingly connected world, it’s strange that the majority in the British referendum wanted to withdraw and become a small separate entity. From an economic, cultural and political point of view this doesn’t make any sense to me. As someone said in the campaign, it’s like claiming one’s independence by moving out of the house and moving into the garden shed!

When my 92 year old mother- in- law heard the referendum result, she cried. She vividly remembered the devastation of the 2nd World War  and feared that the Leave vote might lead to the unravelling of much of the progress Europe has made since 1945. The vote seems to ignore the lessons of history, and if further countries leave, might lead to a more insecure and dangerous continent. It’s not surprising that Russia’s President Putin is delighted at the news of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the powerful bloc that has been opposing his aggressive policies. It may also lead to the further unravelling of the United Kingdom itself as the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted firmly to remain in Europe. They may soon vote to leave us and leave us weaker and more vulnerable in a dangerous world. We are a proud, sea-faring nation, but how will we cope when we are cut adrift and are left alone in turbulent waters?

 

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